Category Archives: Rights
Christians have sometimes claimed that the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” forbids government from ever mandating the redistribution of wealth for the sake of the poor. According to this interpretation, the status quo is the result of God’s providence and must be respected. It is up to individuals, not society collectively, to assist the poor through charity.
Does the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the eighth commandment in Lord’s Day 42 support this interpretation?
The catechism describes three levels of theft that are forbidden by God. First are “outright theft and robbery, punishable by law.” Second are “all scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God.” This category includes actions that are illegal, but it also includes practices that may be legal.
Third is “greed” and the “pointless squandering of [God’s] gifts,” as well as the failure to do “whatever I can for my neighbor’s good” and to “work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.”
Taken seriously, as Abraham Kuyper points out in his commentary on Lord’s Day 42, this thorough description of the various forms of theft is anything but a sanction of the distribution of wealth according to the status quo. On the contrary, it speaks sharply to the human conscience, convicting human beings of the myriad of ways in which we steal from our fellow image-bearers.
If property owners “try to deduce from the eighth commandment that all they have is their lawful property and that God has given them the freedom to do with it as they please,” Kuyper writes, “Christian ethics has the duty and call to break down all such false notions.” Indeed, when our responsibility to the poor is taken seriously, “it is immediately clear that the eighth commandment’s transgressors are largely found precisely among the owners, and that their number is greater outside of the prison walls than inside of them.”
The socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous claim that all property is theft was an exaggeration, Kuyper admits, but its basic insight was anticipated in this sixteenth century Reformed catechism. “On closer examination … it is true that a very large part of the belongings in this world are stolen property – yet it was not Proudhon who discovered this, for as early as 1563 this awareness could already be found in the catechism.”
In fact, the Christian conviction that excess wealth belongs to the poor far predates the Heidelberg Catechism. Most theologians from the early church to the Reformation maintained that God has given the earth to human beings in common and that property ownership is but a secondary right, one qualified by the obligations of stewardship and justice and subject to the regulation of government. It is inherently unjust when the poor do not have what they need.
Thus the church father Ambrose famously insisted that the wealth of the church belongs to the poor. Thomas Aquinas maintained that for a person in dire need to take what he or she needs from a person who has excess is not theft at all. John Calvin insisted that those who can share with the poor must share with the poor, not as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice and right. He argued that it is the spiritual responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate and the political responsibility of the community to care for the poor through civil government. In Geneva the diaconate worked closely with the city government to provide sustenance, health care, education, and even job training for the poor.
The catechism clearly supports this classic Christian perspective. Theft consists not merely in outright theft or even in cheating or swindling; it includes “all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.” It requires the constant and continual redistribution of wealth.
Does the catechism tell us that government has a role in enforcing this requirement of justice? Given the consistent practice of Christian societies through the centuries (including the sixteenth century), it would have been shocking if the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism assumed anything else. The insistence of some Christians that government has no business caring for the poor is a modern phenomenon, alien to the Christian tradition.
Our confessions wisely leave the practical questions of political economy to the collective wisdom of human beings in their various times and places. But they should not leave us in doubt as to the basic principle: It is a responsibility of all people, Christians and non-Christians, as individuals and collectively, in the church and through the state, to secure economic justice for the poor.
This article was originally posted at Do Justice, the blog of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice.
It just so happens that as Congress considers dismantling Medicaid as we know it – as well as an end to the law that requires health insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions – I am preparing to explore the theme of “Good News for the Poor” with my seminary ethics class. One of the things I do with my students is to walk through the New Testament to show them just how continuously and emphatically Christ and the apostles call Christians to take responsibility for the poor. Care for the poor is so central to the kingdom and its justice that it became the basis for an entire office of the church: the diaconate.
I also point my students to the history of theological reflection on poverty in the Christian tradition. In particular, we discuss the general Christian consensus that God gave the earth and its resources to human beings in common and that property rights are always subject to the rights of all human beings to the basic resources necessary for life.
Thus the church father Ambrose argued that the possessions of the church belong to the poor. Thomas Aquinas argued that it is not theft when a starving person takes what she needs from a rich person because every person has a right to have her basic needs met. And John Calvin argued that those who do not share with the poor when they are in need are guilty of theft – and potentially of murder. Basic provisions are not owed to the poor as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice. Indeed, Calvin regularly stated that the poor have a “right” to such resources.
That’s why Calvin took the work of Geneva’s General Hospital so seriously. He believed it was the responsibility of government to provide funds for poor relief and medical care, and that it was the responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate.
I’ve written a fair bit on Calvin’s views of poor relief, here on my blog (including on Calvin’s view of the distinct responsibility of government with respect to the poor), for the Gospel Coalition, and for the Calvin Theological Journal.
I realize that Christians differ on just how it is that government should most effectively secure justice for the poor – whether with respect to poverty in general or health care in particular. Neither the church nor its clergy have any authority – let alone expertise – to dictate health care policy to the state. But where I think Christians ought not disagree is that we owe the poor their rights – to basic sustenance and to basic health care – as a matter of justice.
That’s why, for instance, the catechisms of the Reformation (Heidelberg, Westminster) declare that the commandments You shall not murder and You shall not steal require us to care for the needs of the poor. To put it in classic theological terms, it is a requirement of the moral law of God. It is part of the natural law written on our hearts as image-bearers. We are, scripture teaches us, our brothers’ keepers.
If we believe that failing to secure the poor their rights constitutes theft – or even murder – then it goes without saying that it is well within the responsibility of government to protect the poor from such injustice. Indeed, if government can be best evaluated based on how well it protects the poor from injustice – as Calvin thought – than how proposed health laws will affect the poor should be the primary concern of legislators and citizens alike.
Whatever conclusions we come to with respect to particular policy approaches (and we should be humble here), we should be agreed that health care for the poor is not merely a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. Our representatives should know that this is where the Christian tradition stands.
Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has reminded Americans of the vital and positive role of religion in a healthy democratic polity. While pundits speculate on whether or not the pope’s visit will have any practical effect on politics, I remain hopeful that his words will do something to challenge the myth – popular among secularist liberals – that liberal democracy can survive without its religious foundation.
This is important because in a time when the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are surging, fewer and fewer people grasp just how theological are the origins and foundations of political liberalism. My politics students are always surprised to learn how central religion was to the political commitments and conduct of America’s founding generation, not to mention its pervasive role in federal and state governments throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The pope touched on liberalism’s dependence on religion early in his speech to Congress. Invoking Moses as both jurist and prophet, he declared to the representatives that “the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”
Echoing a speech by President Obama several months ago, he acknowledged that religion is often used for evil, but insisted that in America religion has typically served to strengthen society by encouraging fraternity and love. Thus he called Americans to act according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, he argued, is the basis for human compassion for “human life at every stage of its development.”
Francis’s speech to the United Nations was even more pointed. While praising the UN for its role in promoting international law and human rights, he reminded his international audience that human rights depend on sanctity given each human being by God. The right to life provides the foundation for “pillars of integral human development” that are “essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.”
There is, he claimed, “a moral law written into human nature” that demands “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Thus, he warned,
Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.
The pope was partly thinking about what nature teaches about the differences between men and women here, but he was also talking about the importance of protecting the environment.
[E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.
Thus it is a “certain sacredness of created nature” that calls modernity to embrace a “higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”
Finally, returning to his American audience at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis invoked the truth of the Declaration of Independence that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”
Yet rather than allow his hearers any sort of complacency about the rights to which liberalism is committed, the pope reminded Americans that “these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” This led him to focus his speech on a right that has been much derided in recent years in this country, the right to religious freedom.
Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.
Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights… They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.
To be sure, just as the state is responsible to protect the rights of religion, so believers are responsible to ensure that religion promotes the rights of others, “to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity … and a path to peace in our troubled world.'”
These are salutary words indeed, much needed in the polarized world of contemporary American politics. Though I wish the pope had been more explicit about the way in which his convictions are rooted in the Gospel, his visit should remind all Americans, secular and religious alike, that, properly understood, Christianity and political liberalism are not enemies, but friends. In the world in which we live, they need one another to flourish.
I fear for future of American Christians if this country loses its liberal commitment to fundamental human rights, including the right of religious freedom, but I fear for the future of political liberalism even more. Pope Francis has reminded Christians that they ought to promote a Christian form of liberalism and he has reminded America and the world that political liberalism needs religion. I hope that Christians and liberals alike are paying attention.
The New York Times reports today that the Democratic Party across the country is erasing its ties with its founders. No longer will the annual party dinners commemorate Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson (as the Republican dinners commemorate Abraham Lincoln). The party wants to be more inclusive, and according to former Democratic Congressman Barney Frank, this is an honest nod to the fact that the politics of racial and sexual identity now trumps the classic Democratic emphases on democracy and economic equality.
Both Jefferson and Jackson were slave-owners, of course, and Jackson played a leading role in the forced removal of thousands of Native Americans from the southeast.
The commemoration of Jefferson and Jackson is as old as the Democratic Party, but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who sought to mold the party’s image indelibly around them. Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence’s ringing celebration of human equality, and Jackson, the inspiration of modern democracy and the common man, were seen as powerful alternatives to the Republicans’ Lincoln in a time when FDR was trying to forge a coalition of farmers and working class Americans across the country.
But the opportunities facing the Democrats have changed. Now, while the Republican Party becomes increasingly white, the Democratic Party grows in diversity. Given the way in which identity shapes voting patterns, this is not good news for the Republicans. It may seem odd that a major American party would cut its ties with the founding fathers (If the Democrats have their way does America eventually erase Jefferson, Jackson – and Washington too – off its currency? Do the memorials go?), but partisan politics is about the present, not the past. In short, this is predictable.
But what is especially important about this shift is its symbolic meaning. You might think the erasing of ties to Jefferson and Jackson is fundamentally about their role as slave-holders, but the real meaning has just as much to do with the Democratic Party’s rejection of natural law. Remember, again, the words of Jefferson, once thought to be immortal, enshrined in America’s founding document:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
From whence do these rights – this equality – derive? From “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” as the previous paragraph declares.
It is no accident that the rejection of Jefferson follows only a few years after the Democratic Party committed itself to gay marriage. The establishment of gay marriage represents the culmination of a fifty-year long shift on the part of the Supreme Court – one enthusiastically supported by the Democratic Party – away from any sort of grounding of human rights and civil law in the laws of nature and nature’s God. Natural rights are out; civil rights are the rage. Natural law is dead; civil law is supreme. Given that morality has no objective reality to it – it is a human invention, not a reflection of a Creator’s purpose for creation – it can only be grounded in subjective reality: individual autonomy.
As Justice Kennedy wrote in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, “liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.” Based upon this “autonomy of self” citizens have no right to use the democratic process to discourage, let alone criminalize, acts they deem fundamentally immoral. But as Robert R. Reilly points out, this formulation is unusual.
Why did Justice Kennedy not simply say that liberty includes these freedoms, or, … that liberty itself is rooted in unalienable God-given rights? Why the presumption of ‘an autonomy of self’ as the supposed foundation for it? What does this mean?
What it means is that the whole trajectory of the Supreme Court’s reasoning about matters of morality during the past 50 years – a span that encompasses the Court’s determination that an adult’s right to privacy (i.e., autonomy) trumps an unborn child’s right to life – constitutes a rejection of the very doctrine of natural rights and natural law that the founding fathers viewed as the foundation for human happiness. The Democratic Party may as well announce that it is erasing its ties with the Declaration of Independence in favor of a new commitment to the autonomy of self.
We have been here before, of course. When it embraced the infamous Dred Scott decision (which ran roughshod over natural rights in declaring that black people are not, in fact, persons at all) on the eve of the Civil War, the Democratic Party engaged in a short-lived experiment to see if a racist will to power could become the foundation for American government. Abraham Lincoln responded by appealing to Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration that all men are created equal, words that he said were prior in authority to the Constitution itself.
Lincoln recognized that while the founding fathers had their flaws (slavery!), it was in the doctrine of the founders that the purpose of America could be realized. The founders got a lot wrong, but they got the most important things right: natural law, equality, human rights as derived from the Creator, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Democrats’ determination to be a party of diversity and inclusion is laudable (and one that the Republicans desperately need to emulate!), but this is not the way to do it.
The Democrats’ desire to erase their party’s ties with Jefferson and Jackson is significant because it constitutes a symbolic rejection of the men who articulated and sought to embrace the self-evident principles of the laws of nature and nature’s God. This is not liberalism. It is the abandonment of liberalism. That’s tragic for the Democratic Party and it is very bad news for America.
I’ve been reading Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World this week, and was therefore disturbed, if not entirely surprised, to come across this Huffington Post video describing the ‘ethics’ of Euthanasia in Belgian. In Belgium close to 1 out of every 20 deaths are the result of individuals with terminal illnesses or incurable suffering choosing to be killed by a physician. Yes, children too. There are all sorts of bureaucratic safeguards to make sure the process is not abused, of course. You can rest assured about that.
It was not long ago that virtually everyone in Europe and the United States would have found this scenario morally abhorrent, even dystopian. But this is the new reality. Has the Liberal West lost its moral compass?
Many Christians would say yes, but I think this assessment is mistaken. It’s not that the West has lost its moral compass. It’s that its compass is adjusted to point in a slightly different direction than it once did. Over time, that slight difference leads you to a very different moral terrain. But there is still a coherent rationale to it.
What we are seeing is the divergence of two kinds of Liberal individualism. On the one side is the more traditional Liberalism, what I might call a Christian Liberalism. Christian Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single individual human being by virtue of his or her creation in the image of God. Human life is sacred, according to Christian Liberalism, because each human being has been created in love for a relationship with God. Not only should each person’s life and welfare be protected and promoted, but each person should be taught how to find happiness in relationship to a loving God. Regardless of a person’s worldly circumstances, Christianity teaches, she can find her true destiny in Christ, in whom there is no male nor female, neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Greek.
According to this ethic euthanasia and abortion are off limits and should be prohibited by the state. Institutions and practices fundamental to human well-being – such as marriage, education, religion, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.
A stimulating account of the origins of this kind of liberalism appears in Larry Seidentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Its preeminent advocate in contemporary political theology is the Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.
The second kind of Liberalism is developing into something we might call Secularist Liberalism. Secularist Liberalism emphasizes the dignity of every single human being who has developed to the point of relative self-sufficiency by virtue of the integrity of his or her autonomy. Human life is to be protected, according to Secularist Liberalism, because each developed individual is an end in and of himself and should always be treated as an end in and of himself. Society needs to be careful to avoid over-determining what is the good life for any particular individual. Each person’s choice of lifestyle and self-expression should be affirmed; all must be included.
According to this ethic abortion is a necessary evil because it is sometimes required to solve the clash of interests between an autonomous woman, who is an end in herself, and a fetus who has potential personhood, but is not yet sufficiently developed to possess autonomy. Euthanasia is acceptable, even to be preferred, because it partially restores death, that sensitive and yet inevitable event looming in every person’s life, to the control of human choice. Institutions and practices integral to human agency – such as sexual expression, education, health care, and care for the poor – should be promoted.
The primary philosophers associated with what has become Secularist Liberalism are Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, but its assumptions are now pervasive in western culture.
These two strands of Liberalism have much in common, of course, because the one gave birth to the other. (Tim Jackson likes to say that political liberalism is Christianity’s stepchild.) They share a commitment to the dignity of the individual, and support many common institutions and practices. What is more, most people are not so philosophically consistent as to fall entirely into one way of thinking or the other. Consider these as two types, types that are increasingly diverging in their response to contemporary issues of justice.
Christians are sometimes tempted to abandon liberalism because of the excesses of its secularist version, and some of our most prominent public intellectuals call us to do just that. But this is a mistake. We need to get back to promoting the beauty, integrity, and truth of Christian Liberalism. Once the unchallenged reign of Secularist Liberalism begins to lose its shine, once human beings begin experiencing the moral and social isolation of a self-referential individualism, I suspect more than just orthodox Christians will begin to thirst for more.
David L. Chappell’s A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow challenges standard accounts of the civil rights movement and the reasons for its success, identifying religion as the key factor that enabled change. It was the prophetic vitality of the religion of black churches, leaders, and civil rights activists, he argues, that enabled them to overcome the much more economically and politically powerful forces of segregation. On the other hand, it was the lack of religious support that undermined the cause of the segregationists. While “black southern activists got strength from old-time religion, … white supremacists failed, at the same moment, to muster the cultural strength that conservatives traditionally get from religion” (p. 8).
Chappell begins by diagnosing the inadequacy of post-World War II liberalism. Liberals believed in human nature, convinced that reason could and would overcome prejudice and superstition. But this very optimism rendered them passive in response to stubborn southern opposition. If human progress was inevitable, better to allow time to do its work than to provoke a southern backlash that might only delay such progress. Some liberals realized that the problem was liberalism’s lack of spiritual energy and authority. Post-war liberals supported civil rights, but “They were not the ones who made it move” (p.43).
Protestants are currently experiencing revival of interest in natural law. For a long time most Protestants dismissed natural law as a Roman Catholic concept, one that carried with it all sorts of semi-Pelagian assumptions about human nature and the powers of reason. Even worse, they associated it with the Enlightenment and its Deistic abandonment of orthodox Christianity.
Even today many conservatives and liberals alike find their reasons to reject natural law. For conservatives the concept serves as a Trojan horse for the rejection of scripture, a dangerous elevation of human reason and autonomy. For liberals the captivity of natural law thinking to the concerns of “pelvic ethics” suggests that it is simply a way for religious conservatives to pretend they are using public reason, when in fact they are simply expounding traditional Roman Catholic attitudes toward sexuality, marriage, and birth control.
Both of these dismissive views share a common confusion about natural law, one well summarized by the French Reformed sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul in his 1946 The Theological Foundations of Law, written just after World War II had destroyed law in Ellul’s native France:
“Too often … natural law is defined as a doctrine, as an interpretation of legal facts, as a philosophy of law… Yet natural law is not primarily this philosophy. It is first of all a phenomenon which exists not as an idea, but as a concrete event in history… As such, it cannot be disclaimed any more than the fact of religion or the fact of the state can be disclaimed.” (14)
Ellul identifies the philosophy of the Stoics and the theologies of Aquinas and Calvin as examples of relatively sophisticated natural law theories that had virtually no impact on actual law. Real natural law, he insists, is something on which we reflect, not something that we construct.
Ellul thinks natural law arose at a point in human history shortly after religion and magic became differentiated from law and morality. At that stage
“Law is established by custom or legislation, independently of the religious power, as if it were a spontaneous creation of society under the impact of economic, political, and moral factors. It is not dictated and created in one piece by the state. It is not imposed from outside. It springs directly from within society, from the common sentiment and the common will. These may not of necessity be consciously intended to result in a juridical creation, but they are certainly consciously experienced as a habit and obedience. This law rests on the adherence of the people who brought it into existence. This adherence is won because the law is merely the expression of the conscience of these people and of the circumstances in which they live. There is no alternative to adhering to this code.” (18-19)
By the time theories of natural law arise, Ellul argues, the phenomena is already in its decline. “It is indeed the moment when man ceases to be spontaneously ‘within the law.’ He places himself outside the law and examines it. Law becomes an object of speculation and interpretation.” (19)
It is but a short step from the systematic analysis of natural law to its replacement by positive law. “It does not take long for this view to reach the jurist, who in turn tries to organize law in a rational way.” Soon law becomes becomes a creation of the state.
“[A] juridical technique is worked out which is increasingly precise, increasingly rational, and increasingly removed from spontaneity. At this point the code hardens. It becomes a consecrated abstraction, always trailing behind social and political evolution, always in need of being brought up to date by arbitrary innovations, more or less adapted to the conditions of society. Law becomes the affair of jurists, receiving authority and sanction from the state.” (19)
No longer is law viewed primarily as the expression of an organic public consensus concerning justice, but it is viewed as an alien imposition on the part of those who have power. No longer are laws enacted as general rules of justice to be applied and enforced with prudence and equity, but law is seen as a mass of particular rules and regulations designed to foresee every possible circumstance and eventuality. Law becomes ruthlessly logical and systematic, yet blind to justice itself. “It is adequate for all material interests, yet inadequate for justice.” (32)
Here we are faced with the specter of tyranny, no matter what our system of government, as law becomes simply a means by which the powerful exploit the weak. After all,
“juridical technique is at the disposal of whoever wishes to take advantage of it… it may be utilized by any kind of power in history. When this happens, a definite purpose is ascribed to this intrinsically neutral technique. The technique is manipulated according to new and arbitrary criteria, substituted for the ideas of justice and natural law.”(32)
Having been a leader in the French resistance, Ellul identifies Nazism and Communism as the phenomena that he has in mind. In both cases the natural law of justice was abandoned and law was manipulated as a flexible tool for a new and greater purpose (i.e., ideology). The inevitable byproduct of this development is the collapse of the rule of law itself. The state is raised above the law and those under its rule know it. Why should they voluntarily submit to rules that have no grounding in right or justice? The power of the law now simply consists in fear and coercion, and people will disobey it when they get the chance and when it suits their interests.
Ellul describes these developments as history. Natural law, he thinks, has been lost, and no amount of theorizing or theologizing can recover it. The only hope for humanity is a revival of civilization on the part of God himself. I get the sense this sentiment would resonate with many American Christians today. Why even bother reasoning about politics or the law? Things are too far gone for that.
I think Ellul’s analysis of natural law and its history has much to be said for it, but I think he wrongly reduces history to an inevitable evolutionary process over which humans have little control. I also think that he – and many contemporary Christians – are too quick to dismiss the moral sensibilities of a world that remains under the common grace of God. Ellul wrote in the shadow of a shattered Europe, with millions of the dead able to testify to what law had become in the hands of dictators and soldiers, guerrillas and criminals. But even in the late 1940s and 1950s Americans were much more optimistic (witness the baby boom) because they realized that the European experience was not the whole story.
Indeed, it was out of the ashes of World War II that a system of international law and human rights emerged that can only, only be explained as an example of natural law at work. It is true that this system is codified and enforced to varying degrees around the world. It is also true that while it approximates certain Christian moral sentiments better than did the laws of traditional societies, it largely ignores others. But this is nothing new under the sun. Anyone who tells you there was a golden age of morality and law hasn’t read much history.
Ellul rightly characterized the dangers facing a society that has lost its allegiance to justice (i.e., to natural law), but if the West has received another lease on life, Christians would do well to engage in the hard work of strengthening and rebuilding moral consensus rather than seeking to overcome it with the use of brute force (all the while complaining about its demise). Jesus is still Lord, the sun continues to shine, and rain continues to fall on the just and the unjust alike. That suggests there is still something to be said for the world after all.
I’m currently teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics as part of a course designed to familiarize students with some of the leading ideas and figures that have shaped western civilization. The scope of the class is sweeping, but it provides the opportunity to compare three broad perspectives that have shaped the West: the Greek (i.e., Aristotle); the Christian (i.e., Augustine, Aquinas, etc.); and the Enlightenment (i.e., Locke, Rousseau, etc.).
In a time when many assume that the teachings of Christianity can be jettisoned by western society without much loss to a liberal, democratic society, I think students are somewhat surprised to discover just how thoroughly religious and elitist was Aristotle’s vision of society. Along with Socrates and Plato, Aristotle was the leading pagan philosopher before Christianity came on the scene; his work on the good life, on ethics, and on politics represents some of the best the Greeks had to offer.
Take, for instance, Aristotle’s conviction that for human beings all things are to be directed towards one ultimate Good, that Good being happiness. Aristotle is by no means unique in his judgment that since ‘man’ is a social animal, and the city is greater than the individual, the science or discipline of the Good must be that of politics. The purpose of politics is to educate and train human beings in the virtues necessary to attain to the Good. Laws are measured by the degree to which they command virtue and forbid vice.
All of this may seem true to a certain extent. But my students – college sophomores – are quick to point out that if virtue and the good life are so important, it hardly makes sense to hand over their direction to the political authorities. Who is a politician, let alone a philosopher, to decide what is the good life, to tell me how to educate my children, to guide me in following the appropriate virtues? The modern instinct, in short, is to argue that if something is so important, that is precisely why it should not be subject to political control.
Aristotle’s ethics appear all the more troubling when it becomes evident just how elitist it is. Aristotle’s virtues presuppose a level of education and wealth that, as my students point out, seems utopian. But of course, Aristotle was not a utopian, and he did not think the ethics he was outlining was for the masses, the ‘slavish’ and the ‘bestial.’ On the contrary, Aristotle’s ethics was designed for that small sliver of human beings at the top of society, the citizens. The entire way of life of these citizens, their ability to study wisdom or to participate in politics, depended on the vast majority of human beings working for them as slaves. The latter were not expected to participate in any full sense in the good life.
It’s not that Aristotle was trying to justify oppression or the greed of the powerful. On the contrary, his virtues of liberality and magnificence outline the generosity and public devotion of the (wealthy) virtuous man. This man is not too concerned about acquiring wealth. He avoids shady trades like commerce and usury. His wealth – ideally self-sustaining – is simply a means to the end of doing good to others. The virtuous man will be paternalistic and do good to his inferiors – women, slaves, etc. Prudence never leads one to act unjustly.
Still, we are left with the unalterable conviction that Aristotle’s vision of society gives far too much authority to the politicians and describes the common good with far too much deference to the elites. In contrast to this it is fascinating to observe how Christianity was such a game-changer in the ancient world. Here is a religion that declares that every individual’s unqualified religious loyalty is to a man crucified and allegedly raised from the dead in Palestine. No Caesar or governor has the right or authority to dictate how a person worships or what a person teaches concerning the truth. Christians, as individuals and as congregations called out from the world, will follow their convictions regarding the good life no matter what the king or the city decrees.
It is no wonder that many sociologists and historians have found in Christianity the origin of the separation of church and state. Politics is no longer the ultimate, authoritative discipline, let alone the ultimate reference point for true community. Civil governments are merely temporal authorities with a limited, secular task.
But that’s not all. In the midst of a world whose philosophers and moralists speak only to the elites, and in which citizenship is a matter only for the few, the apostles of Christ address wives as well as husbands, children as well as parents, slaves as well as masters. They describe these socially unequal relationships in terms of equal obligations to mutual Christlike service and submission, declaring them to be eschatologically null and void ‘in Christ Jesus.’ They describe every Christian, slave or free, male or female, Jew or Greek, as being a citizen in the one city that matters.
It is no wonder that many historians and sociologists have found in Christianity the origin of a meaningful concept of the individual, not to mention the seed of the idea of individual human rights. Each person, regardless of social status, now has the obligation of a direct, responsible allegiance to Jesus Christ. Each believer has an important place as a citizen in Christ’s body, possessing an inalienable Christian liberty.
The early church was a long way from modern political liberalism, of course, and the two are not the same thing. Political liberalism – the tradition of democracy and human rights – has been successfully transmitted to thoroughly pagan societies like Japan. But there should be no doubt that Christianity laid the intellectual foundations that made modern political liberalism possible. And there is also good reason to be skeptical of claims that Christianity can be entirely jettisoned without undermining political liberalism itself. As my friend Tim Jackson likes to say, political liberalism may not be ‘Christianity translated into politics’ but it is certainly the ‘stepchild of Christianity.’ If you’re in doubt about that, go read Aristotle.